Our ancestors had it so much better than we do when it comes to crime fiction.
Readers were much less jaded and familiar with the tropes of the genre and so they got fooled more easily, and writers in turn didn’t have to rack their brains to find some new trick or a clever way to use an old one.
Alas, or fortunately depending on one’s point of view, the Golden Age happened and a certain lady from Torquay in particular upped the game so much that coming up with that shocking new twist that readers were now clamouring for became increasingly harder, even impossible. I have become extremely difficult to fool myself, which isn’t that much of a problem since my conception of « good » plotting doesn’t rely solely on the writer’s bamboozling abilities but still points to a major if often unheralded problem with the genre: the reader is not passive but actually learns from their previous experiences. It either takes colossal authorial brilliance or colossal reader stupidity to make the same twist work twice, or thrice, or – you get the idea.
Among the old tricks that no longer work with me and I suppose many readers is the Least Likely Person, and it’s all Dame Agatha’s fault. While Christie made a virtuoso use of nearly all of the tricks in the book and even originated some of her own, she virtually exhausted the LLP one by having anyone, and I mean anyone, as the culprit. When and after reading a Christie story you suspect everyone including and starting with the seemingly most innocuous characters or the ones with the best alibis.
Pretty hard to fool a reader with such a mindset – and yet crime writers did and still do try, often with mixed results.
Most of the time the trick fails miserably because of the writer’s inability or unwillingness to make their LLP a genuine LLP. This reader smells a rat for instance when the detective while professing to suspect everyone never or never seriously envisions the possibility that this or that person may be the guilty party – nine times out of ten, they are. Another problem with the LLP is that writers tend to think Least Likely means insignificant and so we end with the shocking revelation that a character we never cared for was the murderer after all; talk about a letdown. Finally, the LLP trick works better with a large cast as it makes the character less of a sitting duck and also more difficult for the reader to use the elimination method; you just can’t have a LLP with a cast of two or three suspects.*
Talent, even genius, can help making the old trick work once more, even with as jaded and well-read an amateur such as yours truly. John Dickson Carr did last year with The Plague Court Murders which is in many ways a flawed book but still boasts a wonderful LLP that fooled me completely even though in retrospect it was the only logical solution. This is because Carr shared with Christie an innate understanding of how the human mind works and how the most effective trap is the one it builds itself. Carr in Plague Court never actually deceives the reader, he just lets the reader deceiving themselves by confronting them with a situation and letting them jumping at the most obvious conclusion – which happens to be false. He did it even better a decade later with The Emperor’s Snuff Box in which the theme of self-deception is made even more explicit. So the LLP can still work sometimes – but not everyone is John Dickson Carr.
And perhaps it is better that way, for the Least Likely often is the Least Credible as well – sometimes the reason why this girl or that guy is not a suspect is simply that it wouldn’t make any sense. This is a problem not just with the LLP but with all « Gotcha » tricks: a moment of surprise can and often does ruin the cohesion of the whole. And cohesion is or should be ultimately what good plotting is about.
* This is not entirely true as Cyril Hare once managed to pull out one with only two characters, but 1°) it was in a short story and 2°) he was Cyril Hare!